This post is from contributing writer Mary Voogt of Just Take A Bite.
Is it just me or is it a whirlwind between Thanksgiving and Christmas? The last thing I want to do is spend half of my time in the kitchen. Especially when I’m with family. At Kitchen Stewardship we believe real food shouldn’t be a burden or take up all your time.
I’m the queen of making things as easy as possible (like this Instant Pot mac ‘n’ cheese). We just hosted Thanksgiving…and I was able to take a nap in the afternoon before the big meal (being pregnant had something to do with that)!
No rushing around. It was so laid back.
And yet we had quite a feast that I prepared completely by myself (well, my kids helped with chopping veggies and making the desserts since they are experts in the kitchen after doing the Kids Cook Real Food eCourse).
My Secret to Low-Stress Entertaining?
Do as much prep ahead as possible. My goal when cooking for a crowd is to make as much food as I can ahead of time and just put things in the oven/crockpot/Instant Pot the day of. I tackle one or two projects a day leading up to the festivities. So I’m not overwhelmed.
Then I get to take it easy and spend time with my guests on the day of the party. No shortcuts with packaged food necessary.
I even have the added work of hosting for several days since my family is all out of town. So it’s more like meal prepping for three full days of meals instead of one big meal. But it’s still totally doable! The only thing I had to make at the last minute this year was the gravy. Everything else for our meal had been prepped hours or days ahead.
Getting Started for Stress-Free Entertaining
The first step is menu planning. Do this a few weeks in advance so you have time to shop for supplies and gradually work through your list. Then figure out what can be made weeks in advance, days in advance or the morning of. And go from there.
Here is my course-by-course breakdown of how to create a delicious holiday menu that you can prepare in advance. Your guests will be amazed by all of the real food goodness and you’ll get to enjoy spending time with them. Pick and choose from each category for your best holiday feast ever!
Ham cooks wonderfully in the crockpot. Put it in first thing in the morning (or the night before if you’re eating at noon) and forget about it until dinner time. To avoid potentially harmful nitrates/nitrites and less than ideal sweeteners I make my own ham from a fresh pork roast. No guessing about ingredients! And it tastes amazing.
This is another set it and forget it meat. Cook it in the crockpot or Instant Pot.
Want some nice, roasted meat but don’t want to have to cook it for hours? Roast a few small chickens or Cornish hens. They cook in an hour or two. Dry brining a few days in advance will really keep them moist.
A big, roast turkey is the epitome of a nice holiday dinner. But it’s also a big pain! Hours of cooking, wondering if you cooked it long enough. And then when you get it on the table everyone has to wait for it to be carved. Not to mention the cleanup after of de-boning and making turkey broth.
The solution? Cook the turkey a day or two in advance! Cut it into pieces. Then simply warm the turkey in a covered pan with lots broth. It will be moist, flavorful and ready to serve!
Need a vegetarian option? Quiche makes a great centerpiece for your meal. And it’s easy!
Make a crust in advance and freeze it until you’re ready or make it crustless. Mix eggs, milk and whatever seasoning and veggies you like.
You can even make the egg mixture a day ahead so that all you have to do is pour and bake. Easy! We had spinach quiche for our day-before-the-holiday meal so I could keep my work to a minimum.
I know I’m in the minority, but the veggies are actually my favorite part of the meal (and my three year old would agree)! There are so many good choices. And all of the prep work can be done in advance.
This is my go-to side whenever we have guests (holiday or not). Chop the veggies days in advance (better yet, have your kids do it!). Then just mix with oil and salt and bake an hour before dinner is served. Our favorites are red cabbage, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts. Sweet potatoes, carrots, onions, and beets work really well too.
Cold vegetable salads
Sometimes it’s nice to have a cold veggie option with all of the hot food. A simple tossed salad with a few topping options is great. A layered salad is meant to be prepared a day ahead. Perfect!
This holiday Greek salad would be a great addition too.
Squash is our family favorite. We grow about 30 squash in our garden, so it’s a no-brainer to roast some for a holiday meal. If you want to put in a little effort you can cut it into cubes and roast it for a sweet treat.
But my no-fuss style means roasting whole squash in the oven days (or weeks or months) ahead. After a couple hours the squash will cut right open for scooping. I do like to scoop it into a bowl and puree it, but that is optional. Simply put it in a casserole dish and bake when it’s time for dinner.
This kid-friendly favorite is so easy! Grab a can off your pantry shelf (if you’re a home canner) or grab a jar of organic applesauce at the store. Warm it for a few minutes before the meal to really make it fancy.
Canned peaches or pear sauce
These are staples in our pantry after a summer and fall of preservation. I’ve got the easiest method for canning peaches. If you’ve never tried pear sauce you must! No sweetener added. Just pears. It is my kids’ favorite. And it requires no effort the day of the feast.
I had never even tasted cranberry sauce until a few years ago when I tried my friend’s recipe. Wow! It’s so easy and so delicious. Skip the can of gel and go for the real thing. It only has a few ingredients and takes about 10 minutes to make. Best of all you can make it days in advance. This year my six-year-old made ours!
What kid doesn’t love finger jello? Use this gummy recipe and cut it into squares or fun shapes.
My husband is a big fan of jello salads. But we both grew up with the ones with food coloring and questionable ingredients. So I have recreated many of our childhood favorites like pear lime jello salad, strawberry lemon jello salad, and cherry rhubarb jello. Make them a day or two in advance. Easy.
Mix it up as a salad or just serve it on a platter. Either way, you can’t go wrong with fresh fruit. Pick whatever is in season for the best flavor.
For some people, holidays are all about the carbs! They are delicious, aren’t they? Keep them simple with these easy options.
I can’t make a holiday meal without mashed potatoes (so says my husband). To make it super easy on myself I make them in the crockpot! They can stay warm for hours.
This is more my style of potatoes. Stick them in a cheesy casserole. Not to mention you can prep them ahead and then just bake. Scalloped, au gratin, choose your favorite. This is another chance to get your kids involved. They can practice peeling and slicing.
If you really want to keep it simple go for baked sweet potatoes. Set out some butter and brown sugar for the topping. Nobody will complain.
If bread is a must-have for your family, bake some homemade rolls well in advance and freeze them. Simply warm before serving. Set out butter and homemade jams and jellies (like this super easy strawberry freezer jam) to go with it. Nobody can resist warm rolls with homemade jam!
This may not be a traditional holiday addition, but it’s a great gluten-free and allergen-friendly option. We love butternut squash risotto. Or you can make it with quinoa!
I saved the best for last. But really dessert is probably the first thing you’ll make! Most desserts can be made weeks in advance and frozen. Don’t feel like you have to make a traditional dessert that goes with a particular holiday. Make what you like and you have time for.
There are three ways to make a pie. You can simply make the crust and freeze it until the day before the party. Then bake one day in advance.
You can also prepare the whole pie (filling and all) and freeze it before baking. Then bake the day of for a freshly baked pie.
This is another easy one to bake weeks in advance. Cover it well and freeze. Then thaw and frost/decorate the day before or day of the party.
Cookies can be baked and frozen weeks or even months in advance. They only take about twenty minutes to thaw for fresh-tasting baked goods. You can also freeze cookie dough and bake the cookies fresh the day before or day of the party.
If your goal is to do as little as possible the day of the party, pudding works well. Make it a day ahead in individual serving dishes. Then there is no need to even dish up dessert! Everyone can get their own. This dairy free version is great for those with allergies!
Ice cream is the perfect crowd pleaser. Make your own (like this amazing chocolate ice cream or classic vanilla) or buy good quality ice cream. Set up a sundae bar for self-service. Go really festive with homemade peppermint stick ice cream with hot fudge.
Fruit and cheese
Not that into sweets? Need to cater to certain diets? A plate of fresh fruit and cheese is always a good way to end the night. And it might help everyone sleep better than a bowl full of sugar too!
Cooking real food for a crowd will always take work. But it doesn’t have to be stressful or take your whole day. Do it a little at a time and enjoy the celebration just as much as everyone else.
The bonus at the end?
You get leftovers for days! Be prepared to relax and enjoy all your hard work long after your guests leave. My favorite part! Didn’t quite have enough room on your plate (or in your tummy) for another scoop of green bean casserole? Didn’t get to taste both kinds of pie? No worries. You’ve got plenty of time to feast!
Plus, you get to control the food…in case your relatives don’t see eye-to-eye with you on food philosophies. I’ve never heard of anyone turning up their nose to real, home-cooked food!